So way back a long time ago, some of the more superhero-minded readers of this blog were having a discussion about Avengers, and, specifically, Avengers “epics”—those big, universe-spanning stories that supposedly stand as evidence of the greatness of the Avengers and of Avengers. Kurt Busiek’s recent Kang: Time and Time Again is the best recent entry in that genre, and I do think it’s pretty great.
Growing up, many of these tales attained a kind of mystic significance for me. I would see them referenced in various Marvel books (back when Marvel referenced things) as seminal, earth-shattering moments in Avengers history. However, I knew very little about them, and, given my meager economic resources back in the days before everything got collected into trades, I certainly couldn’t afford to buy them and read them firsthand. Somehow, that was satisfying in its own way, too, though. The persistent references to a history that was essentially unavailable to me made the Marvel Universe seem that much bigger, made its history seem all the richer. For instance, I knew there was a time when a disillusioned Steve Rogers had given up being Captain America, but I only knew bits and pieces of the story that I’d gleaned from oblique references and short flashbacks in the contemporary comics or from a brief paragraph in The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe or clip art in Marvel Saga. Far from being alienated by the weight of continuity, I was engaged by it. It’s a cliche that superhero comics don’t offer change, only the illusion of change—Spider-Man will always suit up again, Iron Man will climb back on the wagon, Hal Jordan will wear garish jewelry and be dull. But at least with a storytelling paradigm that’s respectful of continuity, you got the sense that those interruptions in the status quo meant something significant, had a lasting effect on the character, even if it only ever registers in the occasional thought balloon. A series wasn’t effectively rebooted every time a new creative team came aboard. Thus, there were some genuine stakes involved in what was going on currently in the title.
Of course, now everything is available in reasonably affordable TPB form, sometimes even from the library. And, to bring this back to the Avengers, I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with each legendary Avengers epic that I’ve finally gotten my hands on. “The Kree-Skrull War” is notable mainly for Neal Adams’ art and the cool Ant-Man-inside-the-Vision bit; “The Korvac Saga” doesn’t make any real sense; “Celestial Madonna” was so boring I couldn’t even finish it (though I liked Englehart’s “Serpent Crown” storyline better).
But looking back through some old comics a while back, I think I found the one truly satisfying Avengers epic, one that managed to be both sprawling and cohesive, both cosmic and personal, both deeply resonant for longtime comics readers and completely accessible to new ones. There are, perhaps, reasons it hasn’t been collected in TPB form yet. It’s from the 1980s. Al Milgrom drew it. And it took place not in the flagship Avengers title, but in its scrappy offshoot, West Coast Avengers.
Oh yes. I’m talking about “Lost in Space-Time,” a story that ran in WCA #17 thru #24 and was written by Steve Englehart with art by Al Milgrom, featuring a roster of heroes including Iron Man, Wonder Man, Tigra, new leader Hawkeye, and his wife, Avenger and former Agent of SHIELD Mockingbird. So here’s what happens: the alien Dominus is bent on world domination. Well, of course he is—it’s right there in his name. You’d think these alien conquerors would at least try a little harder to fake out the earthlings. I mean, we might not be so quick to raise the alarm against Cuddlor, Snugglus, or Koalazz. But I guess the sort of arrogance that makes you an effective alien conqueror would make such a gambit seem beneath you. Actually, considering that Dominus’ predecessor named himself “Lucifer,” he may think he is being subtle.
Anyway, Dom uses a damaged version of Dr. Doom’s time machine to send the WCA back to the nineteenth century so that they can’t interfere with his aforementioned plans for world domination. Stuck in the Old West with a time machine that only goes backwards, the WCA (or “whackos”) thus set about trying to find someone in the past who knows enough about time travel to fix the machine and send them home.
Simple enough, right? Oh, but it wasn’t. One of the great things about this story is how complicated and accessible it is simultaneously. It’s complex in terms of story structure—the penultimate chapter, issue 23, follows stories going on in 7 different time periods at once, from two years ago to ancient Egypt to the “cosmic no-time” of the Egyptian gods. And it’s complicated in terms of its Marvel history—several of the historical moments the Avengers travel to are the very moments of other famous time-travel stories featuring the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange, for instance. It would have been easy for the whole thing to have become an exercise in pandering to fan nostalgia, but Englehart does a good job of keeping the contemporary (whatever that means in a time-travel story) Avengers front and center; they skirt the fringes of those epics past, but Englehart never lets those stories get in the way of his own. Instead, he uses them to suggest the scope and depth of the MU and to, I realize in hindsight, argue that his team (and his story?) belongs among the pantheon of the greats.
This storyline was really packed full of Avengery goodness. I’ve already written about a couple of the major changes—Hank Pym taking on a new, non-superheroic costumed identity, and Moon Knight joining the team. One of the most significant developments occurred in the WCA’s first jaunt to the Old West, when a team up with Marvel’s classic Western heroes the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid (an Avenger, remember, from his own time-travelling days), and the Phantom Rider that starts off so well goes so very, very wrong: a crazed Phantom Rider, obsessed with Mockingbird, snatches her off the time machine just as the Avengers prepare to jaunt back in time and then drugs and brainwashes her. Creepy. Mockingbird does eventually shake off his spell with some help from Rawhide and Two-Gun, and what comes next sets up one of the major character arcs for her and for Hawkeye for the rest of Englehart’s run: Mockingbird battles the Phantom Rider until he’s hanging by his fingers from a cliff, and then…
Mockingbird doesn’t tell Hawkeye she let the PR die, since killing is against the Avengers’ code that Hawkeye holds so dear. She does eventually confess, but it turns out that the Hawkeye to whom she confesses is actually a robot duplicate sent by Scorpio, leader of the robot version of the Zodiac Cartel (there’s a human version, too), to infiltrate the Avengers and I LOVE COMICS.
Englehart slips in some nice, pulpy, time-travel plot dealies, too: for instance, in ancient Egypt, Hawkeye makes some weapons so that the priests of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon, can fight off the forces of the evil Pharaoh Rama-Tut—the same weapons that the Moon Knight uses in the present day. And they eventually manage to contact Hank Pym and La Esperita in the future simply by writing a note (with Hawkeye’s “inkjet arrow,” ‘natch) and sticking it in the family Bible of one of Esperita’s ancestors for her to find in the future.
Now, if there’s a weak spot in this storyline, it’s with the stories that Englehart uses to bracket the time-travel arc. Dominus is fine as a villain, but his henchmen are less than awe-inspiring. I don’t think it’s a mistake that we haven’t seen much of Sunstroke, Butte, Gila, and Cactus since this storyline. Here’s Cactus facing off with Wonder Man (in his fugly green-and-red costume):
I love it. “I am made of pulp!” That’s a helluva comeback, there, Cactus. Who’s a terrifying killing machine? Who is? Who? You are! Ess oo are! Now go menace Huey, Dewey, and Louie with the other enchanted flora and let the grownups play.
But Cactus—in fact several dozen Cacti—return for the big showdown. Below, you can tell Moon Knight is beginning to think that being an Avenger is a lot more ridiculous than he’d imagined.
I’m totally making that my default reaction whenever I’m confused about something ludicrous. “Cactus?”
So, in summary: Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom’s “Lost in Space-Time” is an epic Avengers tale for the ages, and people who don’t think so deserve only your scorn and contempt.
In other, random, comic news, Christpher Priest has an insightful analysis of what went wrong on his sadly short-lived Captain America and the Falcon series, here.